by Anna Cornelia Ploug
This is the original article. The text appearing in CEAzine #1 is a modified version changed by the editorial team.
Unless you are a wicked liberal with a twisted sense of masochistic market indulgence (if you are, read no further), you have probably not only experienced the devastating personal consequences of constituting a neatly calculated brick in the Higher Education Factory yourself, but also seen or heard of the implications this market-driven machinery has for your peers at other institutions, in other places, whether it be anxiety and pressure to complete your degree in no time, the substitution of scientific research for ‘the building of skills and competences’ that can be wrapped in plastic and sold tomorrow, rising tuition fees, unbearable housing conditions or the prospect of a life long dept.
For many, the difficulty lies not so much in identifying the source of these problems – ultimately, they are just different articulations of a university handed over to market forces – as in transforming frustration into constructive action. In this essay, which I have polemically termed a ‘guide’, mirroring the various guides issued for students to conform to yet another restricting university reform, I have compressed some of the core experiences of what proves to be productive undertakings, accumulated by various students protests, into three main democratic tools, roughly put as disturbance, strike and occupation. Not always referring to easily distinguishable or discrete actions, these concepts attempt to capture different aspects of the modes of action at stake in the student protest.
In the following, the character and context of particular manifestations of the general problem of the neoliberalisation of the academy is considered quite simply beside the point, and should be bracketed for the time being (which is not to say, of course, that it should not be meticulously analysed in your own practice, in order to perfect the scope of your tactics and adequacy of its articulation).
Denmark has recently experienced a quite uplifting occurrence of a radical student movement, namely a spontaneously formed community of students called Et Andet Universitet, which can be translated as ‘Another University’ or ‘A Different University’. I will use examples from their actions as a paradigmatic model of what democratic student activism can look like – and indeed has looked like around the world at numerous occasions – based on a categorisation of three moves that each echo a different conceptual figure.
A Different University was originally formed in Copenhagen during the winter 2013/2014 in response to a number of reforms aiming at reducing study periods and evaluating disciplines in pure market terms. In the following year it grew to a widespread and horizontally organised movement with active groups at different institutions all over the country, which carried out occupations and a number of other actions especially in the fall of 2014 and first part of 2015. One of the movement’s chief action forms was the blockade.
While established student unions and organisations arranged official meetings and happenings such as releasing hundreds of balloons into the air as an illustration of the decline of student places implied by the university reform, A Different University followed a less symbolic and more disruptive mode of action.
On September 19 2014, a group of students hid in the main building of the university administration in central Copenhagen and interrupted the matriculation speech held by the rector (or ‘vice-chancellor’) for new students, whilst distributing flyers aiming at mobilising and politicising students: “At the moment the university is not a political battlefield, and does not even provide a place for negotiation. Neither students nor academic staff is being listened to. But without us there is no university”, they said. “We need to organise in new communities”.
By interrupting and taking over meetings, the framing of the situation can be controlled and the top-down management language opposed. The literal intermission of speech is a way to reclaim authority over the interpretation of the situation, as when A Different University disrupted a meeting at Aarhus City Hall on January 13, cutting off the Minister for Education and Science and giving a speech of their own.
In spite of the showcase element of these ‘interruptions’, the disruptive impulse is clearly there. Rather than developing merely symbolic happenings, easily transmitted and integrated into the liberal conception of a ‘public conversation’, the aim is to actually interfere with and potentially shut down the implementation of the given reforms as well as turn off the continual discursive stupidity of politicians and university directory.
In order for a protest to be effective and genuine, it needs to target the material site of the machinery: make sure that the unwanted processes become as tedious, inflammatory and expensive as possible, or even – preferably – impossible altogether.
This intention is manifest in the blockade, which constituted the core element of A Different University’s ‘democratic toolkit’ (an expression used by the rector of Aarhus University to denote the kind of actions he would tolerate – as luck would have it, our protesters had a more thorough understanding of democracy than considering formal meetings with representatives from a board primarily constituted of CEO’s from the private sector as ‘democratic’ in any meaningful sense of the term).
Besides from barricading an event on November 26 where the professed ‘Quality Commission’ was supposed to present a report of what above all consisted of an increasing neoliberal integration of the university – which resulted in the university requesting the police to get rid of the students (19 persons were initially charged with intrusion) – A Different University carried out a number of occupations involving blockades. In November, the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen and the rectorate building at the University of Aarhus were occupied, in December a similar action was carried out at Roskilde University, and in April 2015 coordinated occupations took place at the rectorates in Copenhagen, Aarhus and Roskilde.
During the occupations, the everyday operations of administration and teaching were put to a halt; staff was denied access to keys, computers and files, and no one except activists (including staff) were allowed in the occupied spaces.
The movement explained their choice of action in terms of unmediated effect: “We block because we want to stop the day-to-day operations of the department as well as the innocuous critique of the reforms… The university is our work place. This is where our everyday life and our courses take place. To block the Ministry would be geographically closer to the power centre, but at the moment it not possible to prevent it from running. To paralyse the university locally is to stop the machinery from functioning.”
While the formal power to launch and withdraw political reforms may reside in the parliament, its practical execution and maintenance take place everywhere from the office of administration to the individual student dutifully conforming to new restrictions. There is no significant threat in letters, words and language on their own; it is only when a political stance is materialised in a physical attack on the flow of things that the protest actualises.
For this reason, any genuine opposition to the political status quo must be one that interrupts, disturbs and destroys the economic and administrative infrastructure of the university and/or its relations to other parts of society. As put in a communiqué from November 17: “If the government reduces the university to a factory, our only chance is to sabotage the machinery locally.”
Whereas the blockade demonstrated an outward act carefully directed at the daily execution of the functions of institution, the strike can be thought along the same lines of reaction to a set of predetermined premises, but no more involves a positive interference with these premises. The strike, rather, belongs to the figure of refusal.
In addition to the literal student strike, a tradition that has shown to be efficient e.g. in the Quebec student movement, the strike denotes a fundamental impulse with respect to any kind of antagonistic power: it is the simple abnegation of obligations pertaining to the position one has been delegated in a given hierarchy.
Besides from being a means of forcing the employer to provide better working conditions, and thus a traditional instrument in labour movements, the strike can be considered more broadly as the refusal to meet the standards required from you, whether it be by not paying fees for tuition or accommodation, as the rent strike in London last year successfully illustrates, by suspending classes, failing to meet administrative criteria such as registration or exams; in general, not behaving as you are asked to and meant to in order for the structure to uphold and reproduce itself.
The French collective Tiqqun describes this comprehensive use of the term, what they call grève humaine, precisely as a Bartlebyist refusal: “The human strike is the strike that, whenever THEY expect this or that predictable reaction, some contrite or indignant tone, PREFERS NOT TO.”
An example might be illustrative. In early 2014, a group of students taking the name The Coordinated Withdrawal, mimicking the Danish universities’ Coordinated Enrolment-procedure, encouraged their peers to identify with the consumer-role offered to them in the marketised university system – and return the goods. They handed in signatures of students declaring their withdrawal from the university, and announced that they would deliver the withdrawal forms as soon as 68% of the students were involved.
In A Different University’s case, the (willed) failure to engage in activities that were essentially undemocratic could indeed be seen as a political endeavour modelled on the logic of the strike. Rather than taking part in a meeting set up to an open discussion of future restructuring of the higher education system, A Different University felt that the only adequate response would be to ignore the invitation to ‘a civilised exchange of views’:
“Participating in a debate with the Quality Commission implies presents various pitfalls. First of all we risk assisting the legitimisation of the commission, so that the government after having implemented attacks such as the ‘Study Progress Reform’ and the ‘Dimensioning Plan’ can declare that they, needless to say, have been in a ‘dialogue’ with all relevant parties. We do not want to be used as an instrument by the government, and so we will not engage in any debate on their premises. We do not want to discuss with the Quality Commission, we want to discuss whether such a central apparatus of governing ought to exist in the first place. Second, this commission is an undemocratic in its very core.”
The first reason, the likelihood of being integrated into the smoothing fantasy of ‘having converged apparently conflicting views’, seems sufficient to recommend a polite brush-off, while the latter disqualifies the prospect of any reasonable conversation with assemblies such as the commission altogether.
People outside the site of protesters and supporters tend to be sceptical about such rude and hostile attitudes. As notes Claire Fontaine: “To the distracted gaze of a superficial spectator, a landscape crossed by human strike might even seem more damaged than radically revolutionised.”
As any strike is, in itself, (precisely) a merely privative gesture; nothing more or less than a unexpected wresting away or subtraction of what had been established as meaningful (e.g. daily ‘security’ routines, commodified degrees and the student consumer, ‘democratic debates’ etc.) it is not surprising that some people find themselves alarmed by such apparently entirely senseless activity – or, to put it more accurately, aggressive passivity.
Quite right: ’strike’, from the Latin secessio, denotes a withdrawal or separation, and thus a bleak and obstructive inclination. But on top of the moment of resignation – the soldiers deserting the cause, the woman abandoning her family or the protesters closing their ears to decent debate – there sojourns an inherently positive energy in the potential of re-determining oneself on other terms than those that were (previously) offered as exhaustive of the options. For new norms and organisations of life to come true, some space is needed. This is what the strike is for.
The creation of new spaces is at heart of the occupation. When A Different University occupied one department and several of the Danish universities’ rectorates, it presented an attempt to expedite the dysfunctioning of the institution. Yet, because of the fact that the students had to use their own bodies in order to effectuate efficient blockades, they simultaneously entered into the project of a positive construction of what was initially an exceptional case of blank space.
Who does this space belong to? Had it not been released by a violent interfering with prescribed rules of conduct (i.e. fill in a form, go to a meeting with the rector, at his desk, in his office), detached from its habitual use, the question of proprietorship would hardly ever have been raised.
In the collectively written text Theses for a different university from May 2015, A Different University states as its third proposition that “It is the very purpose of the university to provide space for communities that aspire to gain knowledge. The communities, consisting of researchers as well as students, need to have absolute control over the organisation of these rooms”.
This I take to imply not only that students and staff should be allowed on university grounds (common rooms, classes, canteen and lavatory) but that any part of the university, any question of its organisation, rules, culture and execution, should be defined, discussed and resolved by those who make up and enable the core elements of the academic purpose. In short, staff (academic along with non-academic) and student body ought to be allocated any decision-making regarding the direction and management of the institution.
If they are not, however, they will need to claim this ownership for themselves, an empowering move that might, despite the tradition of keeping the law enforcement outside the church-like territory of university politics, regrettably lead to a desperate shot at re-establishing the unbroken state.
“We are entitled to protest at our university”, A Different University maintained. “The university does not belong to the direction, it belongs to us. The police have absolutely nothing to do at the university. This should be a well-known and universally respected principle.” Hence, occupation takes the form of a re-appropriation and refashioning of the terrain.
While reclaiming a space indirectly involves the opening of an alternative ordering of things, it is in the positive creation of practices on the grounds of the occupation and among the activists that a coherent vision emerges. An academic study of A Different University affirms that the latter “to some extent, in its practices modelled the imaginary of the university it wants to inhabit, of a different university. While this has been less of an explicit strategy and not part of the way the movement has represented itself, from speaking to the student activists, the movement clearly offered a prefigurative experience.” (Risager and Thorup, 2016).
Although implicitly, ideals of direct democracy, anti-capitalism and awareness of intertwined issues such as feminism and anti-racist struggles guided the construction of the occupied space, thus connecting intra-institutional causes with broader objectives of a more democratic society. Moreover, the force and confidence required to confront accepted political norms seems to be enabled and encouraged by the very act of defying oppressive rules of behaviour physically.
This experience appears to be central to the students that in 2009 occupied Kerr Hall at the University of California, on which occasion they “ate food, listened to loud music, smoked cigarettes, wrote messages on every available surface” and “spread our belongings everywhere”, as recounted by the collective research & destroy.
In this physical reclamation of the university property, they write, “we experienced directly the realisation that the institutional spaces from which power emanates – which we are taught all our lives to treat with deference and respect – were merely ordinary physical places, filled with mundane objects. And the shared experience of messing up that space, of treating the property inside as valueless, created instant bonds between participants. It was also a moment of genuine – if temporary – expropriation, as we claimed the property of the authorities for our own collective use.”
By forcing itself onto places genuine democratic impulse has hitherto consequently been excluded from, the movement generates an interstice in the neoliberal university that allows its members, at least temporarily, to recast social practices according to their own imagination.
“Things we until recently considered impossible have suddenly become possible”, one student said during the occupation of the rectorate in Copenhagen. “The political discourse is submerged in politics of necessity entirely dictated by economics. Yet we believe that it can lead to radical changes in our society to discuss these issues in other terms.”
According to Risager and Thorup, the occupation (in Aarhus) was “perceived as a re-temporalization and re-spatialization of ‘our place’, that is, the movement lay claim to the university as a distinctive place with a particular temporal logic.” The discoveries cropping up from the experimental construction of societal practices at play in the occupation might be a good place to look for practical and strategic skills, the articulation of issues to engage with in the future as well as companions to team up with.
The three figures considered in this essay – disturbance, the strike and the occupation – are all names of specific, and sometimes co-existing, aspects involved in a democratically motivated protest finding itself in an undemocratic environment. Schematically, they represent a negative, a privative (and aggressively so) and a positive gesture, respectively.
In order to successfully disturb, one needs to identify and direct the action at the grounds and premises put forth by the opponent – as a result, this is an extrovert endeavour to cause trouble, a breaking down. To strike, i.e. to absent oneself qua valuable component in the machinery, in turn, is an internal act effectuated entirely on one’s own part, but still dependent on terms given from the outside. To occupy, finally, is – on the condition that it is legitimate cause, as in our case – in its nature of being a re-appropriation also a productive putting-together of new spaces, on premises dictated by the movement. Whether taken separately or combined, these figures serve to keep the aim, function and shape of the action in mind, and support strategic discussions of how to proceed.
Since “the university is a battlefield”, as A Different University insisted in a flyer thrown out to reach the assembled freshmen students at the enrolment ceremony at Vor Frue Plads in Copenhagen three years ago, any aspiring student protest ought to chose the most substantial arms at hand: collectively refusing to play our designated part in the neoliberalisation of academic institutions; disturbing the logistic, communicative and administrative structures that uphold such machinery; and, finally, imposing our own ways of living and modes of organisation onto the university so that it might fulfil the idea proper to it of being a truly democratic space for learning.
Claire Fontaine: ‘Existential Metonymy and Imperceptible Abstractions’ in Human Strike has Already Begun & Other Writings, 2013. link.
research & destroy: ‘Reflections on Kerr Hall (by student participants)’, 2009. link.
Risager and Thorup: ‘Protesting the neoliberal university’, Interface: a journal for and about social movements, vol. 8, May 2016. link.
Tiqqun: Introduction to Civil War, Semiotext(e) 2010 .
Illustrations by Aase Lagoon, photo material: Et Andet Universitet
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